Part 4—And the concomitant silence: If there was nothing important at stake, the whole thing would simply be funny.
The comedy would have taken place in last Sunday’s New York Times. On the last page of Sunday Review, the newspaper’s pubic editor was still trying to address the Times’ previous front-page debacle.
But how comical! Even as Margaret Sullivan scolded the Times for its previous front-page mess, a new debacle was taking place on the newspaper’s new front page—and this new debacle was driving the rest of the nation’s “campaign coverage!”
How comical! The new debacle was taking shape in a news report on page A1, the newspaper's formal front page, and in a lengthy column on the front page of Sunday Review. On the back page of the latter section, the public editor was still trying to decipher the previous debacle!
If nothing important was at stake, this would merely be funny. But something important was at stake as this ridiculous nonsense occurred. Early in last Sunday’s column, the public editor quoted a well-known reader who had explained what that is:
SULLIVAN (8/2/15): I wrote a blog post Monday, faulting The Times for too much speed in publishing the [previous front-page debacle], and too little transparency in correcting and revising it, and for the all-too-familiar reliance on anonymous government sources. Rushing to publish a scoop, The Times failed to make sure that the story was correct, and hurt its reputation for authoritative accuracy—precisely what its most loyal readers count on.Professor Tannen had gotten it right! So had public editor Sullivan in selecting Tannen’s comment for publication.
Afterward, Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, wrote to The Times: “There is far more at stake than a newspaper’s reputation. How about the future of our country and the countless lives that are affected by the outcome of a presidential election?”
But alas! If we might borrow from Erich Segal, being public editor at the Times means never getting to say that you’re current! Even as Sullivan puzzled about the prior front-page debacle, its goony successor had formed!
The front-page debacles come thick and fast at the New York Times. It we might borrow from glorious Homer, these debacles arrive in steady succession, “as battle lines of breakers crash and drag along some endless beach, and the rough sea roars.”
(Needless to say, that’s Professor Fagels’ translation.)
Presumably, a major newspaper should try to avoid front-page debacles in general. But it can sometimes seem that the Times’ debacles are notable in two ways:
Dating back some 23 years, these debacles may possibly seem to be disproportionately aimed at Candidate Clinton. And dating back that same 23 years, the liberal world may seem to have mastered the technique of refusing to complain about this phenomenon.
Is it true? Does the Times create a disproportionate number of debacles which cut against Candidate Clinton?
On the back page of the Sunday Review, Sullivan was examining that general question. She seemed to judge that the New York Times does have some sort of problem with that particular hopeful.
(Sullivan: “I agree with this sentiment from a reader, Evan Hannay, who is troubled by some of the Clinton coverage: ‘Hillary deserves tough questions when they are warranted. But it is undeniable that she is already facing significantly tougher coverage than any other potential candidate.’”)
Is the Times executing some sort of “vendetta” against Candidate Clinton, as Sullivan quoted James Fallows alleging in her public editor piece?
It’s hard to assess such sweeping claims. That said, let’s consider a quartet of front-page debacles which the Times somehow managed to publish in roughly a three-month span:
April 24, 2015: The scary uranium dealCan we talk? Those are just the front-page debacles we can recall off the top of our heads! They all cut against one particular candidate—the candidate with whom the New York Times has some sort of problem, or so its public editor seems to have judged.
In this, the granddaddy of them all, the Times publish a mammoth, 4400-word report which constituted a Platonic ideal of apparently partisan, incompetent “campaign reporting.” Judged on a journalistic basis, the report was a remarkable gong show; it resulted from a peculiar deal the Times had struck with Peter Schweizer, a presumably well-intentioned but highly partisan source.
Sullivan mentioned that peculiar deal in Sunday’s public editor column: “Readers objected last April to the way The Times, touting an “exclusive agreement” with the author, reported on aspects of a highly critical book, ‘Clinton Cash.’” Whatever the source of the mammoth report, the journalism it put on display was a gong show, a sprawling, front-page disgrace.
May 30, 2015: The misuse of the supermodel
In this ridiculous front-page report, the Times devoted 2200 words to the claim that the Clinton Foundation had cruelly misused Petra Nemcova, a smokin’ hot Czech supermodel who also runs Happy Hearts, a charitable foundation. The Times struggled and strained to establish the nature of the alleged misuse, while doing an extremely good job of sliming Nemcova herself.
In this ridiculous front-page report, the Times diddled itself with two of the newspaper’s favorite themes—the Clintons have way too much money, plus supermodels exist! Judged on a journalistic basis, this ugly front-page pseudo-report was a groaning journalistic disgrace. On the brighter side, it managed to bring the gender craziness of Maureen Dowd to the paper’s front page.
July 24, 2015: Michael Schmidt does it again
Every time we see Michael Schmidt, he’s appearing on Morning Joe. He’s insisting the Times has made no changes in his latest report, even though the Times plainly has.
In this case, Schmidt had published the multiply-bungled front-page debacle which Sullivan was still attempting to assess in last Sunday’s public editor column. A previous blog post by Sullivan had carried this headline: “A Clinton Story Fraught with Inaccuracies: How It Happened and What Next?”
August 2, 2015: The dying man’s last nouns
Even as Sullivan struggled with the previous front-page debacle, the new debacle was appearing on the Times’ front page. In a ridiculous piece of sleight-of-hand, an unsourced tale from Dowd’s latest column had been transferred to a front-page news report, where Dowd’s unsourced, melodramatic claims were referred to as a “report.”
A serious newspaper wouldn’t have allowed the lurid, unsourced tale to appear in Dowd’s opinion column. Only the Times would let such lurid, unsourced claims move straight to its front page.
Of course, there’s nothing new about front-page debacles at the Times which cut against the Clintons. The history extends back twenty-three years:
March 8, 1992: Jeff Gerth arrives on the sceneMore than twenty-three years ago, the front-page reports got their start! By 1994, Harper’s magazine was attempting to push back against the apparently bungled front-page reports concerning the Whitewater business deal—the front-page reports which largely created an era of perceived scandal.
In an 1800-word front-page report, Jeff Gerth wrote the first of the front-page reports which invented the alleged Whitewater scandal. A long history surrounds these front-page reports. Almost surely, they changed world history.
On October 25 of that year, the venerable journal sponsored a two-hour panel discussion concerning the Times’ Whitewater reporting. The event was held at the National Press Club.
To watch the entire event, click here. The New York Times didn’t attend.
How good, or how bad, were those front-page reports about the Whitewater matter? Such questions aren’t easily answered in a few simple words. That said:
Twenty-three years after Jeff Gerth appeared, the front-page debacles continue rolling ashore. They resemble glorious Homer’s line of breakers, which crashed and dragged as wily Odysseus walked by the wine-dark sea.
Tomorrow, we’ll consider an important phenomenon:
We’ll consider the silence our favorite liberal stars still bring to these front-page debacles.
Tomorrow: It we might borrow from our Shakespeare: Alas, poor Boehlert!